Nora Cochrane, left, of Biddeford and Jeanne Tucker, right, of Kingfield search with other birders for a Bicknell’s thrush on  June 12 on Saddleback Mountain  Deirdre Fleming photo

SANDY RIVER — A 74-year-old woman wondered if she could scale a 4,100-foot mountain.

A 67-year-old birder from Texas traveling on a two-month birding junket also was uncertain.

A woman three months pregnant questioned if her first hike of the year should be so steep. 

All three birders joined more than a dozen others who came to hike Saddleback Mountain in search of the Bicknell’s thrush, a bird that breeds only in the boreal forest and only more than 3,000 feet above sea level. The species was the featured star in the four-day Rangeley Birding Festival two weeks ago with three half-day hikes offered to try to find it.

And yet it’s a very ordinary looking bird. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes the thrush as brown with a “plain grayish face.” 

However, the Bicknell’s thrush also is about to become the poster child for Alpine ski areas practicing environmental sustainability.

A Bicknell’s thrush sings from a branch on Saddleback at 3,400 feet. Jeanne Tucker photo

Later this summer, the new owners of Saddleback ski area – Arctaris Impact Fund – plan to build a 3,000-square-foot, one-story mid-mountain lodge on Saddleback to serve food and beverages to ski-area guests, as well as hikers and birders in the summer and fall. Pending approval by the Maine Land Use Planning Commission, Saddleback’s managers plan to build the lodge just shy of 3,600 feet – smack in Bicknell’s thrush habitat – yet without impacting the uncommon bird. The ski area is consulting with Maine Audubon on the project.

“We’re hoping the mid-mountain lodge can be a model for responsible development at Alpine ski areas,” said Saddleback General Manager Andy Shepard, who joined the June birding hike.

The restaurant will have glass that prevents bird strikes against the floor-to-ceiling windows by using markers in the glass that birds can see, but are barely detectable by people. The marked glass helps mitigate bird collisions with windows, the second-leading cause of bird mortality in the United States accounting for about 600 million bird deaths annually, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 

The restaurant also will be set on pillars to avoid impact to the ground and minimize disruption of the watershed, and it will have a sod roof with low-bush blueberries to offer native wildlife habitat. It will be built after the nesting season – which means holding off on construction until August, not ideal timing for construction in the mountains. But Shepard said the ski area’s goal is to be an environmental leader among Alpine resorts and to protect the uncommon thrush that draws birders.

Kris Federle of Camden, a birder and Saddleback skier, was interested in learning about how the ski area was going to handle construction in the Bicknell’s habitat. 

“It seems they’re putting things on hold,” Federle said. “It doesn’t seem like something they are taking lightly. It would be nice if all industry, if all development approached things the same way. There is so much development in Maine now. It’s a plain, little brownish bird. But it has a cool song.”

The summit of Saddleback Mountain – at 4,100 feet – is prime habitat for Bicknell’s thrush. The medium-sized, uncommon thrush breeds on mountain tops over 3,000 feet – and can be found in the Rangeley region. Deirdre Fleming photo

The species that winters in the Greater Antilles – the larger islands in the Caribbean Sea – and breeds in Maine’s boreal forest is listed as one of special concern by the state of Maine. So the uncommon thrush that thrives in the western mountains, in Baxter State Park and Canada, is a thrill for birders to see – or even just hear.

It’s a species scientists don’t know a lot about, said Steve Hale, the professional birding guide from New Hampshire, who led the festival’s hikes up Saddleback. 

“I’ve been studying the Bicknell’s thrush for 20 years. And I’ve never seen a nest,” Hale said. 

When the group of a dozen birders met on June 12 at 6:30 a.m. at the Saddleback lodge, Hale said they’d drive up as far as they could on the roads lined with ski condos. But they still had a good hour hike to get to 3,000 feet – the start of the Bicknell’s thrush range.  

“We want to get into the hot zone pretty quickly,” Hale explained.

A dozen birders with a wide range of experience joined Hale – three of whom worked for Saddleback or Maine Audubon and came to learn more about the species. Four in the group were avid birders who wanted to experience the thrush, the search to find one, and the thrill of the hunt with fellow birders.

“Birding is a quest, like treasure hunting and archeological digs. Finding the bird is great, but the joy is in the quest,” said Jeanne Tucker of Kingfield, who birds in Maine and around the Florida Everglades six months of the year.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes the Bicknell’s thrush – because of where it nests in thick forests – is “best distinguished by voice.” 

Given that, Hale played a Bicknell’s song on his cell phone after an hour, at 2,990 feet – but just briefly. He described it as “a guitar string popping inside a sewer pipe.”

“We don’t want to pull any individuals off nests. They have a large territory. We don’t need to start any necessary Bicknell’s thrush territory wars,” Hale said. 

The group listened intently – then hiked the steep ski trail slowly and quietly, while continuing to listen to sounds in the woods. Not much farther, at 3,100 feet, Hale noted they were right at the lower limit of the Bicknell’s range. The Saddleback ski lodge looked small far below.

Shortly after at 3,400 feet, the group questioned a sound. They high-stepped through brush to the trees lining the ski trail to listen more closely.

Tucker recorded sound in case the bird made its call again. Then, they spotted one and together watched it carefully. Not long after, another one flew out of a line of dead trees and flitted around in the sun – providing an even better look at the bird.

Nora Cochrane of Biddeford agreed with Tucker – the communal search was part of the rush in finding the thrush.

“I think of birding as an oral tradition. It’s much easier to learn from people explaining it, like this, than reading about it in a book,” said Cochrane, who was on her first hike while three months pregnant with her second child. “I love birding. But the past two years I’ve had no time with my young son. This is a treat for me, to have this bit of freedom, and to be with people who are excited about a bird. I love it when people are driven by one bird that has evaded them.”

Several birders follow guide Steve Hale down Saddleback Mountain during a Rangeley Birding Festival hike on June 12, after searching for and finding three Bicknell’s thrush. Deirdre Fleming photo

Hale considered the entire outing – which lasted another five hours before the group returned to the ski area lodge – a Bicknell’s bonanza.

Soon after the group watched the second Bicknell’s thrush, a magnolia warbler caught their attention. The brilliant yellow-bellied songbird that is common in Maine upstaged the thrush in color and pizazz.

“You know it’s a productive day when people leave the Bicknell’s thrush to look at the magnolia warbler,” Hale said with a laugh. “Yesterday we had no views. We only heard it. On the 2019 hike, only half the group saw the bird. This is special.”


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